Tag Archives: Labor-intensive industrialization

Is the Glass Half Full?: Positivist Views on American Consumption

Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages

By Bruce Sacerdote (Darmouth)

Abstract: Despite the large increase in U.S. income inequality, consumption for families at the 25th and 50th percentiles of income has grown steadily over the time period 1960-2015. The number of cars per household with below median income has doubled since 1980 and the number of bedrooms per household has grown 10 percent despite decreases in household size. The finding of zero growth in American real wages since the 1970s is driven in part by the choice of the CPI-U as the price deflator; small biases in any price deflator compound over long periods of time. Using a different deflator such as the Personal Consumption Expenditures index (PCE) yields modest growth in real wages and in median household incomes throughout the time period. Accounting for the Hamilton (1998) and Costa (2001) estimates of CPI bias yields estimated wage growth of 1 percent per year during 1975-2015. Meaningful growth in consumption for below median income families has occurred even in a prolonged period of increasing income inequality, increasing consumption inequality and a decreasing share of national income accruing to labor.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:nbr:nberwo:23292
(Click here for a free download version)

Distributed by NEP-HIS on:2017-04-23

Revised by: Stefano Tijerina (Maine)

Contrary to the popular outcry that the gap between rich and poor in the United States has steadily increased since the 1960s and that the quality of life has steadily deteriorated, Bruce Sacerdote argues that the picture is not as grim and that the steady rise of household consumption for households “with below median income” is evidence that the national economy has continued to thrive for all U.S. citizens and not just those on the top.[1] In “Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages” Sacerdote reveals that the focus on wage growth favored by economists and policy makers impedes us from focusing on other aspects of growth, such as consumption and the quality of consumed goods.[2] From his perspective focusing on real wage growth and the inflated rates of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) only tells half of the story and that it is therefore necessary to center on consumption data in order to construct a more holistic picture of the economic realities of the below median income household.[3] From his perspective, “low income families have seen important gains in at least some areas of consumption” thanks in part to a steady growth in consumption of 1.7 percent per year since 1960.[4]

Bruce Sacerdote adjusted the CPI to the bias corrections developed by Dora Costa and Bruce Hamilton who previously worked on similar questions, looking at “the true costs of living” and new ways of estimating “real incomes” in the United States.[5] His findings for the period between 1960 to 2015 concluded that there was an increase of 164 percent in consumption for those below the median household income.[6] A previous consumption measure for the same period of time, excluding the bias measures from Costa and Hamilton, showed a 62 percent increase in consumption.[7] A third measurement that calculated real wages using the Federal Reserve’s Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) for the same period of time reversed the claims of wage stagnation furthered by some economists, policy makers, citizens, and labor union advocacy groups. This last measurement showed that when using the PCE to deflate nominal wages, the growth of real wages was 0.54 percent per year.[8] This contradicts the arguments of data sets such as the “2016 Distressed Community Index” that focus specifically on the increasing gap between rich and poor in the United States.[9]

Beside the bias corrections and other measurements, Sacerdote argues that the quality, technology, and durability of current consumption goods is superior to that of previous decades, therefore expanding the relative capacity of consumption of those below the median income. For example he claims that “the number of cars per household has risen from 1 to 1.6 during 1970-2015,” while the median home square footage for this income segment has risen about 8 percent during this same period of time.[10]

His objective of focusing “on growth rates in consumption instead of changes in poverty rates” is achieved by using data and methodologies for analyzing data that shows that “the glass half full” but as it is evident from the working paper, quantitative data can be tailored to fit the researcher’s agenda. Numerous questions surface regarding consumption trends in the United States that lead to further conclusions that indicate that the 164 percent increase of the past fifty-plus years is the result of greater household debt and cheaper consumer goods prices that are tied to the impacts of globalization. Consumer households that fall below the median income continue to steadily consume more, there is not doubt about that, but their wages continue to depreciate while their debt continues to rise. Moreover, globalization has allowed companies to transfer their production overseas, leading to a loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector that potentially offered higher than minimum wage salaries to those households that ranked below the median income. The transfer of production has at the same time guaranteed cheaper products to these consumers that then are able to consume more with their lower wages and their greater access to loans that artificially maintain their consumption capacity while increasing their debt to income ratio.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for the year 2014 was $53,719.[11] This means that half of Americans earned less than that amount. This population, that represents the central focus of Sacerdote’s research, currently has an average household debt of $130,000 (assuming that those earning below the median income are forced to go into debt to maintain their standard of living).[12] The breakdown of this debt shows that mortgages, credit cards, auto loans, and student loans make up most of the American debt.[13] This could indicate that the steady consumption increase demonstrated by Sacerdote could actually be artificially maintained by the financial system that keeps the American consumer afloat.

Sacerdote’s work could also benefit from qualitative research that would provide more in-depth analysis and at the same time counter-balance his claims on consumer choice and the reliability of products being consumed. Qualitative research could provide a different explanation as to why low-income consumers have opted to hold on to their vehicles for longer periods of time, how they are able to purchase expensive technology such as cell phones and access services such as internet and cable television, if indoor plumbing is a sign of a higher quality of life or simply a response to policy and the standardization of construction norms, and if the increase in housing square footage per household really represents a higher quality of life.  

Selectivity of data and research approach in this case clearly benefits the researcher’s argument but this could quickly be turned around with other sets of data and a different research approach. A focus on credit rates and debt rates over the same period of time shifts the argument around and leads to completely different conclusions, and so would a qualitative analysis of the quality of life of Americans. Although controversial, Sacerdote’s work forces the reader to think more critically about the changes that have taken place in American society in the past fifty-plus years and brings up the question of whether or not this consumption approach is more reflective of the nation’s economic dependence on consumer consumption as a percentage of the GDP.

References

[1] See for example Thomas Piketty’s argument on the increasing gap between rich and poor and the possible threat to capitalism and democratic stability in “Capital in the 21st Century.” Cambridge: Harvard University (2014).

[2] Bruce Sacerdote. “Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages.” National Bureau of Economic Research, working paper series, working paper 23292, March 2017. Accessed April 25, 2017. http://nber.org/papers/w23292, 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 1-7.

[5] See Dora L. Costa. “Estimating Real Income in the United States from 1888 to 1994: Correcting CPI Bias Using Engel Curves.” Journal of Political Economy 109, no. 6 (2001): 1288-1310, and Bruce W. Hamilton. “The True Cost of Living: 1974-1991.” Working paper in Economics, The John Hopkins University Department of Economics, January 1998.

[6] Sacerdote. “Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages,” 2.

[7] Ibid., 1.

[8] Ibid., 3.

[9] “2016 Distressed Community Index: A Analysis of Community Well-Being Across the United State.” Accessed April 25, 2017. http://eig.org/dci/report. See also for example Gillian B. White. “Inequality Between America’s Rich and Poor is at a 30-Year High.” Washington Post, December 18, 2014. Accessed May 1, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/12/inequality-between-americas-rich-and-americas-poor-at-30-year-high/383866/.

[10] Sacerdote. “Fifty Years of Growth in American Consumption, Income, and Wages,” 2.

[11] Matthew Frankel. “Here’s the Average American Household Income: How do you Compare?” USA Today November 24, 2016. Accessed May 2, 2017. https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2016/11/24/average-american-household-income/93002252/

[12] Matthew Frankel. “The Average American Household Owes 90,336 – How do you Compare?” The Motley Fool May 8, 2016. Accessed May 10, 2017. https://www.fool.com/retirement/general/2016/05/08/the-average-american-household-owes-90336-how-do-y.aspx

[13] Ibid.

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Was Stalin’s Economic Policy the Root of Nazi Germany’s Defeat?

Was Stalin Necessary for Russia’s Economic Development?

By Anton Cheremukhin (Dallas Fed), Mikhail Golosov (Princeton), Sergei Guriev (SciencesPo), Aleh Tsyvinski (Yale)

Abstract: This paper studies structural transformation of Soviet Russia in 1928-1940 from an agrarian to an industrial economy through the lens of a two-sector neoclassical growth model. We construct a large dataset that covers Soviet Russia during 1928-1940 and Tsarist Russia during 1885-1913. We use a two-sector growth model to compute sectoral TFPs as well as distortions and wedges in the capital, labor and product markets. We find that most wedges substantially increased in 1928-1935 and then fell in 1936-1940 relative to their 1885-1913 levels, while TFP remained generally below pre-WWI trends. Under the neoclassical growth model, projections of these estimated wedges imply that Stalin’s economic policies led to welfare loss of -24 percent of consumption in 1928-1940, but a +16 percent welfare gain after 1941. A representative consumer born at the start of Stalin’s policies in 1928 experiences a reduction in welfare of -1 percent of consumption, a number that does not take into account additional costs of political repression during this time period. We provide three additional counterfactuals: comparison with Japan, comparison with the New Economic Policy (NEP), and assuming alternative post-1940 growth scenarios.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:nbr:nberwo:19425

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2013-09-28

Review by Emanuele Felice

Until the late 1950s, the era of rapid Soviet growth and of Sputnik, the main question among Western scholars was: When would the Soviet Union catch up with and overtake the U.S.?*

As Cheremukhin et al. correctly emphasize, the subject of this paper – Soviet industrialization in the 1930s – is one of the most important in economic history, and in world history: Soviet Union was the country which played by far the biggest role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, standing almost alone against the land force of the Third Reich and its allies for most of the war and causing 87% of the total Axis’ military deaths (in sharp contrast with World War I, when the Tsarist empire was defeated by a German Reich fighting on two fronts). Emerging from World War II as a superpower, the victorious Soviet Union contributed to shape the next four decades of human history, boasting among its technological achievements the first voyage of a human being to the space. At the same time and during the Stalin regime (1922-1953), the scale of (politically caused) human suffering has had few parallels in world history. Furthermore, as early as the 1930s Stalin’s rule was one of the first totalitarian regimes capable of reaching levels of oppressiveness and manipulation over society unobserved before.

For these reasons Stalin’s Soviet Union should continue to be interrogated by systematic studies. At the core of that regime was industrialization, which aimed to be the material pillar of a new «civilization» (e.g. Kotkin, 1995). Regarding its impact over policy making in the twentieth century, Stalin’s forced industrialization was a source of inspiration for both economists and politicians throughout the world: its planned, top-down, implementation was widely considered to be a successful, though harsh, strategy by some contemporaries.

Joseph Stalin (b 1878 - 1953), Leader of the Soviet Union (1922-1953)

Joseph Stalin (b 1878 – 1953), Leader of the Soviet Union (1922-1953)

And yet, we still have relatively little macro-economic evidence about the Stalinist period. The article Cheremukhin et al. aims to partially fill this gap, by providing consistent figures, some new arguments and insightful counterfactuals. It builds upon a remarkable amount of original research. First, it provides a comprehensive and coherent reconstruction of data on output, consumption, investments, foreign trade and labour force. These figures are presented separately for the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors. Data begins in the last decades of Tsarist Russia (1885-1913) and for the the Soviet Union covers the launch of the first five-year plan until the Nazi’s invasion (1928-1940).

Secondly, Cheremukhin et al. propose and elaborate a growth model for the Russian economy in those two periods (i.e. Tsarist Russian and pre-Nazi invention Soviet Union). This is a multi-sector neoclassical model, which is modified to allow for the peculiarity of the economy under scrutiny; namely, due to the institutional frictions and policies that distorted household and firm decisions, three wedges are defined, corresponding to the intratemporal between-sector distortions in capital and labor allocations and to an intertemporal distortion, and price scissors in agricultural prices (between producers and consumers) − which may also be thought of as a fourth wedge − are also introduced for the Stalin’s period.

It may be worth adding that when connecting wedges to policies, the Cheremukhin et al. appear to be adequately aware of the historical context and of the differences between a planned economy and a free-market one: for instance, the response of the Stalinist economy to a drop in agricultural output is likely to be the opposite − because of the price scissors policy which kept producer’s agricultural prices artificially low − to the predictions of a frictionless neoclassical growth model: it will probably lead to a further reallocation of labour from agriculture to industry and services and, therefore, to an additional reduction of agricultural output; such a distortion is here acknowledged and reasonably calibrated.

 “Smoke of chimneys is the breath of Soviet Russia”, early Soviet poster promoting industrialization, 1917-1921

“Smoke of chimneys is the breath of Soviet Russia”, early Soviet poster promoting industrialization, 1917-1921

Thirdly, the paper by Cheremukhin et al. further elaborates on data and models, by providing a number of counterfactuals. Comparisons are made with the Tsarist economy by extrapolating Tsarist wedges for 1885-1913 to the 1928-1940 years. Also by comparing the performance of both economies (Tsarist and Stalinist), for the years following 1940 under the assumption that World War II never happened.

Another comparison takes place with Japan, a country similar to Russia before World War I in terms of GDP levels and growth rates. Early in the twentieth century Japan suffered similar distortions as Russia but during the interwar period Japan undertook an economic transformation which provided Cheremukhin et al. an alternative scenario to both the Tsarist and the Stalin policies (the Japanese projections are based upon previous reconstructions of the Japanese macro-economic figures, which happen to be available for the same period as for Russia, 1885-1940).

Japanese assault on the entrenched Russian forces, 1904

Japanese assault on the entrenched Russian forces, 1904

And what is probably the most intriguing counterfactual, at least in actual historical terms, is yet one more alternative scenario, constructed by assuming that Lenin’s New Economic Policy or NEP (launched in 1921 and outliving Lenin until 1927) would have continued even after 1927: such a counterfactual requires elaborating a model for the NEP economy as well, but unfortunately the lack of reliable data for the years 1921 to 1927 makes the discussion for this scenario «particularly tentative». Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that two more alternative scenarios are provided for the Stalin economy based on alternative growth rates for the years 1940 to 1960 and again under the assumption that World War II never happened; and that robustness exercises are also performed (with further details provided in the appendix).

Broadly speaking, the results are not favourable to Stalin. According to Cheremukhin et al., Stalin was not necessary for Russian industrialization − neither, it could be consequently argued, to the defeat of Nazism and to the Russia’s rise to a superpower status. Actually, by 1940 the Tsarist economy would probably have reached levels of production and a structure of the economy similar to the Stalinist one, but which far less short-term human costs. This result may not be irreconcilable to Gerschenkron’s (1962) theses about substitute factor − in Russia this was the State, already exerting such a role in late Tzarist times − and the advantages of backwardness: these latter would have permitted to backward Russia, once its industrialization had been set in motion at the end of the nineteenth century, to see its distance to the industrialized West reduced by the time of World War II more than in World War I, in any case – that is, also under the Tzarist regime. It does contrast, however, with other findings from pioneering cliometric articles on the issue, such as the one by Robert Allen published almost twenty years ago, according to which Stalin’s planned system brought about rapid industrialization and even a significant increase of the standard of living (Allen, 1998). Similarly, but from a different perspective, long-run reconstructions of Soviet labour productivity tend to emphasize as a problem the slow-down in the period following post World War II, rather than the performance the 1930s (Harrison, 1998) – both Allen and Harrison are cited in this paper, but not these specific articles.

The Dnieper Hydroelectric Station under construction, South-Eastern Ukraine (the work was begun in 1927 and inaugurated in 1932)

The Dnieper Hydroelectric Station under construction, South-Eastern Ukraine (the work was begun in 1927 and inaugurated in 1932)

Now, at the core of the results by Cheremukhin et al. is the finding that, according to their estimates, total factor productivity of the USSR in the non-agricultural sector did not grow from 1928 to 1940. Maybe it is worth discussing this point in a little more detail. Is such a finding plausible? At a first sight it seems puzzling, given the technological advance of that period especially in the heavy sectors. And yet, at a closer inspection it may turn out to be entirely logical: the growth of output was a consequence of massive inflows of inputs, both machinery (capital) and labour. But all considered these were not used in a more efficient way.

In the model by Cheremukhin et al., capital and labour are computed through a Cobb-Douglas production function, with constant elasticity coefficients for labour and capital (0.7 and 0.3 respectively in the non-agricultural sector; 0.55 and 0.14 in the agricultural one, thus assuming a land’s elasticity of 0.31). The authors make a point that the new labour force entering the non-agricultural sector was largely unskilled and, often, was not even usefully employed. Actually exceeding the real needs of that sector: this politically induced distortion could hardly have increased TFP (although, under different assumptions, it could be alternatively modeled through a decreasing elasticity of labour: but the results in terms of total output would not change). This may also explain the good performance of Soviet Union during World War II, when due to manpower shortage the exceeding labour force finally could be profitably employed. The capital stock is calculated by the authors at 1937 prices, for the years 1928-1940.

Anti-Nazi propaganda poster, 1945

Anti-Nazi propaganda poster, 1945

We do not have enough information in order to judge whether a bias can be caused by the use of constant prices based on a late-year of the series. But this possible bias should lead to an underestimation of capital growth in that period  − given that quantities are probably weighted with relative prices lower in 1937 for the heavy sectors, than in 1928 − which would then produce an overestimation in the TFP growth proposed by the authors: in actual terms, therefore, the growth of TFP may be even lower than what estimated; in more general terms – and although caution is warranted for the lack of detailed figures – their results look realistic in this respect.

The most interesting finding, however, is the one relative to the NEP counterfactual. It is the most interesting because, in genuine historical terms, the Tzarist model was no longer a viable option to Stalin, while NEP’s strategy was. But of course, data for the NEP years are much more precarious and thus this counterfactual can only be a particularly tentative one. Nonetheless, the authors build two scenarios for the NEP policy: a lower-bound one, where a growth rate of TFP in manufacturing after 1928 similar to the average Tsarist 0.5% is tested; and an upper-bound one, with a growth rate of 2% similar to the one experienced by Japan in the same interwar period. In the first scenario the results for the Soviet economy would have been slightly worse, but in the second one much better. Given that the two scenarios correspond to the boundaries of the possibility frontier, we may conclude that probably, under the NEP, the performance of the Soviet economy would have been better than both the one observed under the Stalin and that predictable under the Tzar. This may confirm the view that the 1920s were somehow the “golden age” of Soviet communism, as well as the favourable assessment of Lenin’s and later of the collective Soviet leadership in that decade (although, admittedly, Lenin intended the NEP only as a temporary policy). After all, a more inclusive leadership – as opposed to the harshness of Stalinist autocracy in the 1930s, as well as to Hitler despotic conduct of war since the winter of 1941 – was also the one which helped the Red Army to win World War II.

“The victory of socialism in the USSR is guaranteed”, 1932

“The victory of socialism in the USSR is guaranteed”, 1932

References

Allen,  Robert C., Capital accumulation, the soft budget constraint and Soviet industrialization, in «European Review of Economic History», 1998, 2(1), pp. 1-24.

Gerschenkron, Alexander, Economic backwardness in historical perspective, Cambridge, Mass., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1962.

Harrison, Mark, Trends in Soviet Labour Productivity, 1928−85: War, postwar recovery, and slowdown, in «European Review of Economic History», 1998, 2(2), pp. 171-200.

Kotkin, Stephen, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1995.

Source of quote:
Gur Ofer (1987) “Soviet Economic Growth: 1928-1985,” Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 25, No. 4, pp. 1767-1833 (cited in this paper, p. 2).

Whither Labor-Intensive Industrialization?

How Did Japan Catch-up On The West? A Sectoral Analysis Of Anglo-Japanese Productivity Differences, 1885-2000

By Stephen Broadberry (London School of Economics), Kyoji Fukao (Hitotsubashi University), and Nick Zammit (University of Warwick)

Abstract: Although Japanese economic growth after the Meiji Restoration is often characterised as a gradual process of trend acceleration, comparison with the United States suggests that catching-up only really started after 1950, due to the unusually dynamic performance of the US economy before 1950. A comparison with the United Kingdom, still the world productivity leader in 1868, reveals an earlier period of Japanese catching up between the 1890s and the 1920s, with a pause between the 1920s and the 1940s. Furthermore, this earlier process of catching up was driven by the dynamic productivity performance of Japanese manufacturing, which is also obscured by a comparison with the United States. Japan overtook the UK as a major exporter of manufactured goods not simply by catching-up in labour productivity terms, but by holding the growth of real wages below the growth of labour productivity so as to enjoy a unit labour cost advantage. Accounting for levels differences in labour productivity between Japan and the United Kingdom reveals an important role for capital in the catching-up process, casting doubt on the characterisation of Japan as following a distinctive Asian path of labour intensive industrialisation.

URL: http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:cge:wacage:231&r=his

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2015-5-30

Reviewed by Joyman Lee

Broadberry, Fukao, and Zammit focus our attention on productivity comparisons between the UK and Japan, departing from existing works on U.S.-Japan comparisons.

Broadberry, Fukao, and Zammit focus our attention on productivity comparisons between the UK and Japan, departing from existing works on U.S.-Japan comparisons.

Summary

Broadberry, Fukao, and Zammit argue that previous authors such as Pilat’s reliance on a U.S.-Japan comparison to measure Japan’s productivity has greatly distorted our periodization of Japan’s economic growth (Pilat 1994). This was partly because like Japan, the U.S. grew very quickly between 1870 and 1950, and the effects of the Great Depression in the U.S. also blunted our perception of the relative stagnation of the Japanese economy between 1920 and 1950. By comparing the Japanese data with that of the UK, Broadberry, Fukao, and Zammit show that Japanese catch-up began in the late nineteenth century during the Meiji period, and stagnated in the interwar period before resuming again after the Second World War.

In contrast to Pilat, the authors find that manufacturing played an important role in Japanese growth not only after but also before the Second World War. Whereas strong U.S. improvements in manufacturing (the U.S. itself was undergoing catch-up growth vis-à-vis the UK) might have obscured our view of Japanese performance in these areas, comparison with the UK reveals that Japanese manufacturing performed strongly until 1920. In terms of methodology, Broadberry, Fukao, and Zammit emphasize their use of more than one benchmark for time series projections to provide cross checks, and they selected 1935 and 1997 as benchmarks.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the paper is the suggestion that capital played a crucial role in Japan’s experience of catch-up growth. The authors challenge the growing view among economic historians that Asia pursued a distinctive path of economic growth, based on a pre-modern “industrious revolution” (Hayami 1967) and labor intensive industrialization (Austin & Sugihara 2013) in the modern period. Broadberry, Fukao, and Zammit’s data (table 12) shows that across our period, Japan caught up with the UK not only in terms of labor productivity but also capital intensity. Crucially, “by 1979, capital per employee was higher in Japan than in the United Kingdom” (p17). The authors explain this phenomenon by observing that “capital deepening played an important role in explaining labour productivity growth in both countries, but in Japan, the contribution of capital deepening exceeded the contribution of improving efficiency in three of the five periods” (p18). Contrary to the view put forward by those in favor of labor-intensive industrialization, the authors argue, “Japan would not have caught up without increasing [capital] intensity to western levels” (p19).

The authors contend that capital played as important a role as labor in shaping Japan's productivity growth.

The authors contend that capital played as important a role as labor in shaping Japan’s productivity growth.

Comment

This paper provides a valuable quantitative contribution to our knowledge of labor productivity in two countries that are highly important in studies on global economic history. The greater intensity of Japan’s external relations with the U.S. in the period after the Second World War has led to scholars’ greater interest in comparisons with the U.S., whereas as Broadberry, Fukao, and Zammit point out, the UK remains one of the main yardsticks in terms of productivity before the Second World War. In this respect, a comparison with the European experience is valuable, and offers a good quantitative basis for illustrating the character of Japan’s industrialization efforts in the period before the Second World War. The conclusion that manufacturing played a key role in Japan’s catch-up growth vis-à-vis the UK is consistent with the historical literature that has foregrounded manufacturing, and in particular exports to Asia, as the main driver of pre-WW2 Japanese economic growth.

What is more surprising in this paper, however, is the authors’ contention that capital was the primary factor in Japan’s productivity growth. The authors note that until 1970 Japan enjoyed lower unit labor costs vis-à-vis Britain largely because real wages were artificially repressed beneath the level of labor productivity. It was in the 1970s when Japan started seeing increases in real wages, and as a result its labor cost advantage disappeared until faster real wage growth in the UK in the 1990s (p15). In other words, the authors suggest that Japan’s export success was due not so much to improvements in labor productivity as it was to artificially low labor costs. While Japanese labor productivity growth was not exceptional except between 1950 and 1973, the contribution of capital deepening in Japan (2.29% and 1.32% for 1950-73 and 1973-90, as opposed to 0.67% and 0.58% for the UK; table 13) was on the whole greater or at least as much as that of the UK.

While few commentators would dispute the importance of capital in driving economic growth, it is unclear whether the data presented here sustains the conclusion that Japan did not follow a distinctive path of labor-intensive industrialization. The authors cite Allen’s paper on technology and global economic development (Allen 2012) to support their claim that western levels of capital intensity were necessary for productivity-driven growth that is characteristic of advanced industrial economies. While that latter point is well taken, aggregate measures of “capital intensity” do not on their own reflect the types of industries where capital (and other resources) is invested, or the manner in which labor is deployed either to create growth or to generate employment for reasons of political choice or social stability. In fact, proponents of the labor-intensive industrialization argument acknowledge that post-WW2 Japan witnessed a step-change in its synthesis of the labor and capital-intensive paths of industrialization, at the same time that Japanese industries often opted for relatively labor-intensive sectors within the spectrum of capital-intensive industries, such as consumer electronics as opposed to military, aerospace, and petro-chemical sectors (e.g. Austin & Sugihara 2013, p43-46).

Labor-intensive industrialization does not itself preclude high levels of capital investment, e.g. consumer electronics, which employs a great number of individual workers.

Labor-intensive industrialization does not itself preclude high levels of capital investment, for example consumer electronics, which employs great numbers of individual workers.

The key arguments in labor-intensive industrialization are not the role of capital per se, but the constraints imposed by initial factor endowments (e.g. large populations) and the transferability of the model through national industrial policies and intra-Asian flows of ideas and institutions. Broadberry, Fukao, and Zammit do not challenge these core ideas in the model, and confine their critiques to labeling Japan’s technological policy breakthroughs as changes in “flexible production technology” (p. 19). Doing so ignores the basic fact that the balance between population and resources in Japan has little similarity to that in the West, either at the eve of the Industrial Revolution or in the present day. In other words, there is little inherent contradiction between the need for capital accumulation and the selection of industries that make better use of the capital and technology (e.g. “appropriate technology”, Atkinson & Stiglitz 1969 and Basu & Weil 1998).

Finally, it seems to me that basing a critique primarily on a comparative study of the advanced economies of the UK and Japan misses a broader point that labor-intensive industrialization is as much about exploring paths that have been overlooked or inadequately theorized because of our simplistic insistence on “convergence” in economic growth. From this angle, foregrounding the subtle but profound differences between successful models of economic development, e.g. the experience of Japan in East Asia, and dominant Western models seems to be at least as valuable as attempts to reproduce the “convergence” argument.

Additional References

Allen, R 2012. “Technology and the Great Divergence: Global Economic Development since 1820,” Explorations in Economic History, vol. 49, pp. 1-16.

Atkinson, A & Stiglitz, J 1969. “A New View of Technological Change,” Economic Journal, vol. 79, no. 315, pp. 573-78.

Austin, G. & Sugihara, K (eds.) 2013. Labour-Intensive Industrialization in Global History. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge.

Basu, S & Weil, D, 1998, “Appropriate Technology and Growth,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 113, no. 4, p. 1025-54.

Hayami, A, 1967. “Keizai shakai no seiretsu to sono tokushitsu” (The formation of economic society and its characteristics”) in Atarashii Edo Jidai shizō o motomete, ed. Shakai Keizaishi Gakkai. Tokyo: Tōyō Keizai Shinpōsha.

Pilat, D 1994. The Economics of Rapid Growth: The Experience of Japan and Korea. Cheltenham, Glos.: Edward Elgar Publishing.